I first met her in March of 1998. She was 11 or 12 weeks old and I was 22. I was also only 3 months away from my first marriage and four years away from being a mom. My soon-to-be-dog came bursting out of a field covered in smelly mud and dragging what appeared to be a length of cow vertebrae, held together with bits of sinew and tendon. I had to drag the little red fuzz ball away from it as she growled little puppy growls and fought to keep her prize. She had one ear up and one ear was still floppy. It wasn’t love at first sight, as I thought she was much rowdier and scruffier than the rest of her litter. Her siblings had all looked for a place on my lap when I arrived and begged for me to pet them. This red firecracker made it clear she had her own life to live and didn’t care if I petted her or not. Still, by the time I got her home, we were both covered in stinky cow pasture mud and I was in love. I named her Misha.
Misha WAS rowdy. And destructive. She shredded everything she could get her teeth into. I cringe even now to think of how much her destruction cost me and my ex-husband in terms of dollars. She chewed up underwear and socks. She crunched cds and put teeth marks in books. I started frequenting yard sales to keep up with all the stuffed animal carnage. I once witnessed her obliterate my window blinds in a matter of seconds when she saw a dog she didn’t like outside. I thought her chewing and appetite would be the end of her. Besides the random possessions of mine that she’d eaten, she once ate two pounds of chocolate she’d gotten into while I was at work. She also gobbled down a steaming chicken breast, straight out of the oven. My mom and I thought she’d die from that for sure. But she was a warrior dog. She was afraid of nothing and tough as nails.
Even after we began crate-training, she’d find ways to cause havoc. She was an amazing escape artist and could be out the door before you knew what had happened. I’d go answer the door and a red flash would whiz past as she escaped. Somehow she often managed to do this while I was dressed up for work, so I’d have to chase after her through fields and busy streets wearing five inch heels. My parents got to experience this fun little game of hers whenever they were dog-sitting. She led my dad on a chase through the woods when he was trying to get ready to leave for a funeral. Often, the only way to get her back was to bribe her with bacon heated quickly in the microwave. All of us had to hone our acting skills, as well. I once collapsed to the ground in a pretend faint to get her to check on me. My dad convinced her that a stump was attacking so she’d run to protect him. You could always count on her appetite and her desire to protect her pack.
She may have wanted to be with me all the time, but that didn’t mean she wanted to be on a leash. She would run from me if I had one and refuse to let me clip it on her collar. I finally had to put her in a harness so I could clip a leash on without her seeing me. She had no interest in being controlled by anyone. Once on the leash, she’d try to wrap it around my legs so she could bring me to the ground. Knocking me on my butt was another favorite past-time.
Misha was with me in two different car accidents. One gave her a life-long hatred of deer. She was furious that a deer would jump on top of our car and never forgave them for it. The other accident could have killed us both. I think she rightly blamed me for that one. I’ll never forget her judgmental eyes as the two of us crawled out of the mud filled car. The entire bottom half was split right down the center by a metal post, but it had managed to miss us both. I learned to slow down after that.
She slept with me in the bed every night and spent every moment I was in the house at my feet. We’d play tug of war and snuggle on the couch. In a crumbling and unhappy marriage, I spent many nights alone, but she stayed with me as I cried into her fur. She’d lay her neck across me and lean in toward me in her version of a hug. For several years, it felt like it was just the two of us taking care of one another. Still, when I had my daughter, Misha greeted the new baby with enthusiasm and care. She exiled herself from the couch and the bed for fear of hurting the new “puppy”. Misha had infinite patience with Anya and I can’t count how many times I walked into a room to see my little toddler dressing Misha up in hats or pouring her make-believe tea. Misha never shredded another stuffed animal. Stuffed animals were now property of the baby. Misha never had to be told that, either. She just knew.
The lowest points of my young life came and went. I lost touch with most of my friends while I tried to deal with the unexpected turns my life had dealt me. I had to face the death of my father in a horrific car accident. The end of my first marriage. Losing both of my grandmothers – one to death, one to Alzheimers. The loneliness of being a single parent. Misha was there through all of it and never wavered. She was my rock and my constant. Never frightened by anything, she gave me courage. My warrior dog. Before Anya, Misha had sometimes been my only reason to come home at night and to get out of bed in the morning. After my daughter was born, Misha continued to be my partner and friend. She was never my pet, really. She thought we were equals. Somewhere along the way, I realized I felt the same. I never trained her to do anything. If I wanted her to do something, I would just have to come to an agreement with her. Agreements that usually involved bacon. We grew up together.
My life finally calmed down in the last half of Misha’s life. I found my true love and moved all the way across the country to be with him and make a family with our children. Misha took it all in stride, riding 1200 miles in the backseat of a Ford Taurus with Anya and only getting grumpy the last day.
When we arrived, Misha accepted my new loves as her own. She’d play fetch with the kids and explore the backyard, catching birds and squirrels with our cat (the death count when the two of them were in their prime was astonishing!). Paul, who wasn’t even sure he wanted a dog, found himself bragging about her to everyone he knew. She helped keep order in the house, too. When the kids got too loud and unruly, she’d herd them all on the couch and make them wait there until Paul and I came downstairs in the morning. She was always herding cats, kids, me, or anything she felt was getting too crazy.
Though full of energy when we first arrived in Colorado, a few years and surgeries later would turn her into the family elder of the house. Eventually, the kids were the ones who would lay with her and whisper secrets into her red fur while she would watch them with her soft brown eyes. She’d calmed down, too, with her chewing and escaping a thing of the past. We could now leave her alone in the house with no crate for any amount of time and come home to her furiously wagging her tail as we came in the door. I seemed that Misha and I had both found peace and contentment in our new lives.
The decision to put her down was one that we struggled to make. She was 15 and ½ years old and seemingly overnight, I had become hospice nurse to my faithful dog. She had bandages that needed changed and a handful of pills to take daily. She had terminal cancer and had never fully recovered from a stroke. At first I carried all 70 pounds of her up and down the stairs until even that was too painful for her. Then I converted part of the kitchen into her hospital ward. We were all learning first-hand the hardest part of having pets – the end game.
As I tended to her, I would tell her that she never left me when it got hard and I wouldn’t leave her either. I would make her comfortable as long as I could and when I couldn’t do that anymore, I’d make sure she had peace. I waited and waited for a sign she’d had enough. Our vet said that she would stop eating and we’d know it was time. But my eternal chowhound wouldn’t even think of such a thing. As long as she had breath, she would eat. Eventually, the vet told me that he had realized that I was going to have to look for another sign, because he thought she’d go to the grave eating. But that sign never came. She never lost her appetite. She never crawled into a corner to die. She’d struggle to her feet when she knew I’d come home each day. She wasn’t going to miss a chance to greet me. She refused to admit defeat. My warrior dog was never going to stop trying to take care of me and her pack. It was finally Paul and I who admitted defeat and made the decision we’d been dreading.
Her last morning, Paul and I took Misha to a park. I was thankful that it was a glorious, sunny morning. I kept giving her pain pills until she seemed almost exuberant. It was probably a large enough dose to kill her on their own, but we knew we just had a short time before her appointment and I wanted her to be free from pain. She wandered around the park exploring and was excited to see we’d brought all of her favorite foods. She ate hamburger, cookies, dog treats, Easy Cheese, and bacon (of course!). We loved on her and fed her treats and told her what a great dog she was and what a great friend she had been. She soaked it all in and when I’d kneel beside her, she’d lean into me with one of her neck hugs. She was smiling her dog smile and seemed happier than I’d seen her in weeks.
She loved her vet, so she wasn’t upset when we arrived at his office. Everyone there knew her well and were choked up or teary as she offered them all tail wags. Despite the enormous amount of food she’d already been given, she accepted their offered treats like the chowhound she’d always been. In the exam room, she was given the sedative first and Paul and I sat down in the floor to pet her and talk to her. The vet kept coming to see if she’d fallen asleep and was continuously surprised to see her looking back at him when he’d come in the door. Finally, she closed her eyes, let out a contented burp (which made us both laugh), and fell into a deep sleep. The final shot was given, but her heart continued to flutter sporadically for several minutes afterwards. Her vet explained that her heart was so strong, that it was continuing to let off a few random electrical currents. He said that if her heart alone could have kept her alive, she probably would have outlived us all. He patiently kept checking until all the sounds had stopped.
I remember thinking that I should have known that she wasn’t going to just let Death walk in, throw a leash on her, and walk her peacefully into the afterlife. She was a warrior dog, who fought to do things her way to the very end. I laugh to myself when I imagine her shuffling off her mortal coil and immediately breaking loose, forcing Death to run after her, frantically waving a piece of bacon. I’m not sure what the afterlife may hold for Misha or myself, but if I see her again, I have a feeling my warrior dog will be standing with a harried-looking group of angels with a big smile on her face and a few chewed up halos at her feet.